Turner Battle had quality chances to realize his March Madness dream. A few times, he came so close only to be denied.
As a senior in 2005, his basket with 11 seconds left in overtime gave the University at Buffalo a one-point lead in overtime of the Mid-American Conference title game. Then Leon Williams' tip-in at the buzzer sent Ohio University to the NCAA Tournament instead.
He returned to the MAC championship game four years later as a UB assistant coach, but lost to Akron by 12 points. He was an assistant with Tennessee-Chattanooga last season and took a No. 2 seed into the Southern Conference tournament, but got upset.
So what was Battle thinking about his NCAA Tournament chances two days after Christmas?
His new team, University of Alabama at Birmingham, was 4-9. The Blazers also were the nation's third-greenest team, entering the season with a combined seven years of Division I experience on the entire roster.
"The night before our conference championship game against Middle Tennessee, I couldn't sleep," Battle said, "because I was thinking about all the scenarios in my head and wondering, 'Will this be the time?' Luckily, it was."
UAB won 12 of its next 16 games, all against Southern Conference opponents, and then swept the tournament to earn an NCAA automatic berth.
The South Regional's 14th seed knocked off No. 3 Iowa State on Thursday in Louisville.
"It was crazy because we were 4-9 and one of the younger teams in the country," Battle said. "We were trying to figure out ways that we could be in ballgames and try to win. We lost a lot of close games early in the season and felt our guys just didn't really know how to win yet.
"At 4-9, we had a week to prepare for the Conference USA schedule and just wiped the slate clean and started from scratch. We went back to fundamentals and just got better and better every day. We started to find ways to win and got confidence."
Battle grew up in Kernersville, N.C., watching his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels revel in March Madness.
Battle finally got a taste.
He laughs at the idea of how fortunate UAB's players are to be on this run.
"They're so young. I don't think they understand," Battle said. "Up to this point, I still don't think they understand how big a deal this is.
"They're 18, 19 years old and playing high school championship games last year. But they play with a level of confidence I've never seen from players so young."
UAB will play 11th-seeded UCLA on Saturday.
"It's a weird feeling," Battle said. "Everything goes so fast, but it's a blessing.
"It's something I've wanted to be a part of my whole life. Being a part of it now is surreal."
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